The Fine Art of Wide-Format Digital Fine Art

Art galleries have become a very popular place to visit over the past few years. With the stress of day-to-day life becoming tougher and tougher to deal with, and the money for vacations becoming harder and harder to come by, the escapism of visiting an art gallery seems to having a calming effect. Many times, in an attempt to capture that serenity, visitors to the gallery will purchase a fine-art print to hang in their home or office. Sometimes, they can walk out of the store with the print, other times, it must be ordered. Either way, they are probably not walking out with the original. They are purchasing an incredibly detailed print made by a print shop that works with the artist and/or gallery.

Creating a fine-art print is truly an art in and of itself. There is much more to it than scanning in a document and hitting “print.” There are many steps involved, and if you have problems with one of the steps, the whole process can be thrown off.

“First you need to capture the image, then color match it, print it, trim it, and package it,” said Andy Wood, CEO, Squirt Printing, Sunnyvale, CA. “The canvas print needs to be coded, it needs to be stretched, or maybe you need to coordinate framing, or even help the artist drop ship. You need to view it as a whole system. You can make a beautiful print on Hahnemühle paper, but if it isn’t packaged well when it leaves, that’s all for nothing.”

Fine-art prints can be made from photographs and/or paintings and each has its own challenges. “Regarding the process: It’s sort of a different beast, whether you deal with physical art like a painting, or a digital file that’s either a digital painting, or photographic work,” said Wood. “Each of those has it’s own twist to it. The process needs are kind of different for each of them.”


Picture This

“Every photographer has their own vision as to what they want,” explained Andy Wollmann, president, Century Editions, Scottsdale, AZ. “Some want muted tones, others want to wow a client with high saturation and dynamic range.”

Many photographers manipulate the files themselves and simply submit work for printing, so Wollmann needs to ask if a client wants to print the file as is or if final adjustments need to be made to enhance sharpness and or dynamic range. “Until we get a feel for what they want their art to be, we produce proof files,” he said. “As we become familiar with a photographers work they generally trust us to fulfill their vision.”

“All artists (and I consider photographers to be artists) want to be treated with respect and want to able to communicate their artistic concerns to make sure that the printmaker interprets correctly for them,” added Al Marco, owner, Marco Fine Arts Inc., El Segundo, CA. “The worst thing that can happen to an artist is that they get frustrated and can’t get their visions across to the printmaker.”

Loupe Digital Studio works one on one with each photographer to accurately reproduce each individual photographic style and mood. “We start off speaking with each photographer about the intended vision,” reported Michael Tolani, co-owner, Loupe Digital Studio, New York, NY. “Next is a round of test prints and only after we jointly reach the photographers vision do we print the final image.”

Tolani said photographers are most concerned with the image archival rating, paper type and the image color, contrast and density. “Our archival inks and fine-art papers have a rating of more than 100 years and we stock many different papers including glossy and matte photographic as well as multiple fiber-based textured fine-art papers,” he said.

Wollmann added that the most common concerns he hears from photographers are the media types that are available, the longevity of the media set (the substrate, ink and coating combination), and the dMax (maximum density of the printing) of the process. “When dMax values are high, images really pop and that translates into sales for photographers,” he said. “This is especially true for black-and-white prints.”


Works of Art

Printing high-quality art reproductions from paintings is a different ballgame, according to Wollmann. “It requires a high-resolution repro-grade color camera, color-correct studio lights, calibration equipment, state-of-the-art monitors and color-controlled lighting or light booths,” he said.

One very important step with paintings, according to Wollmann, is hiring technicians with a high level of color acuity. “We test our employees for color acuity using a Farnsworth Munsell color acuity test,” reported Wollmann. “We have found that artists have significantly better color acuity than the general population, so finding a tech with an equal level of color acuity and Photoshop training can sometimes be a challenge.”

Paintings are where the bulk of Squirt Printing’s work comes from. “There is this never-ending stream of paintings moving in and out of here,” said Wood. “Those usually start with a painted piece either shipped to us or brought in here.”

Squirt Printing uses a BetterLight Super 6k scanning back camera system to capture the images. “It’s a 4x5, and we will take a very nice digital picture of the art,” said Wood. “And that’s specialized with this kind of printing work because you need to bring texture out of the art. You need to bring whatever the feeling of the art is out, so we don’t always light it so that it is a very nice flat even lighting, where there are many hot spots. We need to light it so we can bring out the art, which sort of varies for every piece. There are artists who paint with their palette knife. There are artists who paint with the smallest brush and you don’t ever see any texture to it. And each of them has their own needs—whether they want to see more or less texture or whatever the special part of their art is.”

Once the image is captured there is a color-matching phase. “The best of the cameras, the best of the color management, the best of the printers, never match,” said Wood. “So you always have the Photoshop proofing phase, where a very skilled operator who is kind of a blend of this technical side and an artist’s side, can go into Photoshop and make it match, through a series of proofs. After that, you can go to printing out your large-format prints.”


Technically Speaking

New technology and new media have enhanced the world of fine-art printing. Whether it is new printers, new paper, or even an app on an iPhone, innovations abound.

“We’ve done some really fun printing on Hahnemühle papers recently,” said Wood. “It’s their Photo Rag Satin. We’re printing on the HP Z3200, and we’re just constantly blown away at the color range of that—the clarity and resolution. It’s a cotton rag that has a very, very slight satin sheen to it, and so you get that water-color rag look, but just with a huge amount of color range.”

Squirt Printing uses HP Z3100s, HP Z3200s, and HP 5500 printers, all with the longer life inks. “We don’t use any dye inks here,” stated Wood. “Everything is UV ink.”

Marco Fine Arts buys constantly buys new equipment and software to keep up with its artists’ needs. “We also invest a great deal of money in supporting our customers with our own technology including custom-built websites and other systems to support their needs,” said Marco.

Marco uses Epson’s new fine-art paper, which is 100% cotton rag. Marco says canvas has been is a fast-growing media, and substrates like metal, bamboo, and Plexiglas have been in demand lately. “The most popular are still canvas and paper, but alternative substrates get a lot of attention,” he said.

Century Editions has seen significant improvements in printing equipment and media in the last few years. “Color gamut and longevity of inks have improved dramatically,” said Wollmann. “The stability of pigments has made longevity of prints in terms of color fading a non-issue. Substrates have also made significant gains, though we still see significant variations in consumables production lots, which means that process control in the media end of things could stand for some improvement.”

Wollmann added that new LED monitors can now display a good portion (or all) of the Adobe RGB color gamut for a few thousand dollars in comparison to over $10,000 just a few years ago.

If canvas prints are on the menu, Wollmann recommends purchasing coating equipment like HVLP spray guns, a spray booth and drying racks large enough for the largest print you plan to offer. “You’ll also need a canvas stretching machine, stapler gun, compressor, miter saw and a rack for raw materials if you are planning on offering stretched canvas.”

Wollmann added that photographers typically use one canvas and several papers—glossy, luster, fine-art smooth, fine-art rough and occasionally a metallic paper. “We use a matte canvas that can be coated to be gloss, satin or matte to limit inventory,” he said. “Artists can enhance their reproductions by embellishing the Giclee with acrylics and can even add objects like handmade papers or glass beads. One of our clients uses crushed diamonds in his art.”

Tolani said the industry changed when ink-jet pigment-based inks archival ratings met a sufficiently wide color gamut. “This is when inkjet started to really be used for fine art final prints.”

Tolani finds his clients like Hahnemühle and Museo papers. “They have many different styles and we feel they are a trusted source in terms of quality for the fine-art community.”

And finally, yes, you can order fine-art prints through your phone. “We have an app on the iPhone called iPrintMe,” said Wood. “You can order the canvas right over your phone.” There are thousands of photo apps on the iPhone, including some that can turn your photo black and white, or give it a psychedelic look. But none of them had a way to output the image. “Now, they can order a print over our app,” said Wood. “It takes you seconds. You just fire up the app, choose an image and place your order. And that’s where we see the craziest stuff. It makes our art look boring and it’s fun to do.”

It makes you wonder what the Great Masters would think about all of this.